Working the Skies: The Fast-Paced, Disorienting World of the Flight Attendant
In Working the Skies, Drew Whitelegg takes the interviews and study of a multitude of flight attendants and creates a readable, enjoyable tale of the perils and possibilities flight attendants face. The book is part psychology, part history and part cultural study with plenty of personal tales from retired and active flight attendants. The majority of flight attendants are women, which places the job in a unique historical and social context.
Commercial flight became popular and accessible during the 1950s and 1960s. Originally, flight attendants were registered nurses to allay any health and safety concerns by fliers. It also became a respectable way for women to “escape” the house and have jobs.
As flight became safer in the 1960s, with pressurized cabins and other improvements, airlines began using the attraction and sex appeal of their flight attendants. The exotic destinations and glamour of air travel was celebrated. The author makes the case that there is currently nostalgia for this glamorous ideal of the flight attendant’s world that is at odds with the demands and hazards of the job.
“Space-out” was an often-repeated phrase/concept used by the author. Flight attendants in the capacity of their job are able to create a separate world from their home world. This gives them a particular freedom of autonomy and self-expression not as available to other women, working or not. The excitement and freedom that the job allows flight attendants in the “space-out” is countered by the guilt that many flight attendants with children and those in a relationship. It’s a complex issue combining cultural and social norms of what a woman should be for her children and partner with the affects of the job on the psyche along with the enjoyment of being able to “get away.”
The airlines are painted as worried more about bottom-line then the lives and concerns of flight attendants: shorter layovers, less staff, a return to the "sexy" flight attendant imagery of the past that causes a “squeeze-in” where freedom becomes restricted. It’s worth noting that most upper management staff are male, compared to the female-dominated flight attendant staff.
Working the Skies is an easy read, and I really enjoyed it. After reading this book, on my next flight I will be paying more attention and respect to the flight attendants I see.